Why Side Projects Are Important (And How You Can Get Started)

Some of the most popular products and companies we know, including Slack, Twitter, Craigslist, Gmail and Trello, started as a side project.

Side projects come in many forms but are typically projects started outside of normal work hours.

Often, the desire to start a side project is driven by the quest to become an entrepreneur, an interest in something outside of your core area of expertise, or boredom.

Have you recently thought any of the following?

  • “My job doesn’t feel as challenging as it used to be.”
  • “Everyone thinks this idea of mine is great, but I can’t afford to quit my job to do it.”
  • “I wish I could do this skill better, but it’s not a part of my regular job .”
  • “I want to move into product design [or some other position], but there are no opportunities at work.”

Looking for a new challenge, wanting to expand or grow your skillset, or pursuing an idea doesn’t mean you have to give up your full-time job to do it.

Before we look at how you can get started on a side project (we give you actionable tips below), let’s first briefly discuss why you should invest your time in developing and pursuing a side project. It may be the most important thing you do this year.

Side projects can increase your mental and physical well-being

There are many benefits to starting a side project.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found similar benefits for creative hobbies, many which fit the criteria for side projects.

The results from both samples showed that those who had a creative hobby were more likely to feel a sense of relaxation outside work and to feel greater control and a sense of mastery.

At work, meanwhile, those with a creative hobby were more likely to help others and to be more creative in the performance of their job.

Statistical analysis suggested that the better job performance was partly a result of a greater sense of mastery and control during off-time.

One of the key benefits of side projects involves the idea of recovery.

Putting time aside to work on passion projects, product ideas, or pursue a creative diversion that builds new skills isn’t just good for your mind; it can make you more productive and bring you more life satisfaction.

In fact, studies have shown that people feel more energized and productive at their day job when they have fulfilling side projects and creative hobbies.

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Side projects can help you learn and build skills faster

Our day jobs are usually jam-packed with getting stuff done. Fulfilling our job’s responsibilities and finding ways to be productive are core components of being a good boss or employee.

As such, our focus is limited to the job at hand. Using the time during our work day to expand our skill set or learn more about new technology can feel impossible.

Another thing to consider: a key part of the job hiring process is showing people what you’ve done or what you’ve built.

This can be difficult if you don’t think the work from your day job best demonstrates your skills.

Starting a side project can give you an opportunity to show people what you’re capable of doing.

The Busy Building Things blog put it beautifully when they said:

It’s also important to be our own client sometimes, and have side projects that push new skills, flex our creative muscles, and give us testing grounds for new and innovative ideas.

Side projects are often very different beasts than the work you do at your day job. To be the most successful (that is, to give you the most benefit), there should be some critical differences between the work you do all day and the work you do on the side.

David Hieartt (of Hiut Denim Co.) identifies three key differences:

  1. You don’t need to make a living doing it. Even if it fails, you’re still going to be able to make rent.
  2. They don’t have a fixed deadline. Deadlines can be a valuable constraint, but they can also force us to cut corners and fall back into old habits. Removing that pressure gives you room to breathe, to experiment, and try new things.
  3. They are true “labors of love.” You put in the work and the love, and you keep doing it because you want to, not because you have to. Passion (or curiosity) can be the biggest motivator.

Side projects can be the perfect personal skills incubator: you invest your time and energy, and the returns can not only personally fulfill you, but they can also give you superpowers.

Side projects can insire and help you avoid burnout

It’s sad, but true: That giant lottery jackpot isn’t going to crash through the door like the Kool-Aid guy anytime soon.

Many of us don’t have the time (or privilege) to be able to throw away our day jobs and rush out to do whatever we want. It’s important to find the time for “self-care” to make sure we’re keeping our creative fires blazing and our motivation engines moving.

A side project can provide that extra sense of achievement you might need to keep the monotony or routine of your day job from flattening your soul like a sad pancake.

Many businesses are well aware of the dangers of burnout.

As we wrote previously:

Burnout isn’t just a personal issue; it directly impacts your business. The American Institute of Stress estimates that stress costs US Industry roughly $300 billion annually as a result of reduced productivity, missed work, and employee turnover and related training costs, among other factors.

Consequently, most business owners recognize that giving employees time to pursue personal projects can be hugely beneficial to their overall productivity.

Google was famous for offering their employees “20% time” to work on their ideas. The company has profited greatly from this initiative: a number of their biggest products (including Gmail, Adsense, and Maps) apparently originated as side projects.

Google may have axed their 20% time policy, but the benefit it brought the company is without question.

Other companies have similar programs that give their employees free time to roam. Linkedin has their [in]cubator, Microsoft has the Garage, and Apple used to have a Blue Sky initiative that gave employees two weeks to work on their own projects.

Your employer might not have a policy like this in place, but that shouldn’t prevent you from looking for your own time.

Maybe it’s more like 5%, or even less, but that’s fine, too. The fact you put some time aside regularly to work on your side project is the most important thing.

Before you begin a side project, double-check to be sure it doesn’t contradict any of your company’s policies.

You’ll also want to clarify who exactly will “own” the project. Some companies make employees agree to waivers that give up all rights to anything they create, but this is usually only if it’s done during work hours using company tech or property.

Side project success stories

The business world is full of famous product origin stories where an idea, worked on the side, grew into a runaway success. Here are just a few of them.

  • Gabby Dunn set out to do 100 interviews in a year as a way of satisfying her urge to tell stories. It turned into a book deal, job offers, and recognition.
  • Tina Roth Eisenberg could be considered a master of side projects. She’s behind the well-regarded Creative Mornings talks, the Studiomates co-working space, the TeuxDeux productivity app, and Tattly, a temporary tattoo company.
  • Khan Academy‘s origin story is well-known. It started off as a way for Salman Khan to tutor one of his cousins and has grown into an education phenomenon.
  • Communication service Slack was one of two famous side products for entrepreneur Stewart Butterfield. He was originally trying to create a video game, and ended up with Slack and the once-beloved photo-sharing service Flickr.
  • The Oculus VR headset began as a side project in Palmer Luckey’s garage, and went on to be acquired by Facebook for a staggering two billion dollars.

How to begin a side project

Now we know you should not start a side project for the money, but because you love it. What other things should you keep in mind when you start your side project?

1. Start small

This is supposed to be something you do on the side.

In the beginning, at least, it shouldn’t be so big that it takes up more time than your day job.

Startups talk a lot about building a minimum viable product (MVP): something with just enough functionality and polish to be acceptable by users. A good way to start is to flip this on its head a little and think about your minimum viable project.

Even if your initial idea is big, start small. Try to break it down into its simplest form.

Don’t skimp on the basics when you get started. There’s a difference between a small side project which you hope to grow later and just fooling around with an idea.

You’ll want to create a strong name for the product or company you’re trying to build on the side, and be sure that you invest some effort into strong branding (the good news is that a logo doesn’t need to cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars – if you need help, the crowdspring team would be happy to provide a free, no obligation consultation).

Want to start your own jewelry store? Try making a few items first and selling them on Etsy. Have an idea for an app? Spend some time doing a survey of the market and figure out who your target audience is.

2. Decide what you want to get out of it

Think about what your personal goals are, and try to keep them in focus. Julie Zhou, VP of product design at Facebook (and lover of side projects), put it this way:

Side projects work best when they live at the interaction of ‘Things you enjoy’ and ‘Things that help you practice a marketable skill.’

Image via Julie Zhou

It’s totally fine if your personal goals are a moving target. Part of the joy of side projects is that they’re beholden only to you. There are no clients, no stakeholders, and no one else pushing you forward except yourself.

3. Keep side projects fun, and without pressure

Working on something new can be exhilarating and energizing, but the shine can quickly fade if you put too much pressure on yourself to produce. The whole idea is to take it slow and keep yourself engaged.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your project seriously.

Something small that you do on the side could eventually grow into your main gig. The most important thing is that you stay interested, and you continue to get some value from whatever it is you choose

If things don’t work out, that’s okay! You’re in charge, so you can decide to start over, stop, or choose to go in a completely different direction. You never know where you might end up when you do something purely for the love and fun of it.

Hopefully, we’ve given you some compelling reasons why side projects are good for the working soul. The critical component in all of this is fun. If you’re not having fun, you might as well spend your time working on your day job, because it’s hard to maintain motivation when you’re not enjoying yourself.

Side projects thrive on passion and fun. Sure, it would be great if your side project resulted in a second source of income or an amazing piece for your portfolio, but that’s a nice side effect and not the primary goal.

Alan Watts put it best when he said:

Forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing to go on living, that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid.

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